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  • Writer's pictureDon Wilding

Old Harbor Lifesaving Station Tour

In August of 2019, I had the opportunity to go on a tour of the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station at Race Point in Provincetown. Here's a photo tour, followed by a little history on the iconic building. Enjoy!

In November 1977, the former Old Harbor Lifesaving Station began an unusual journey north following an 80-year stay on North Beach in Chatham. Hurdle after hurdle got in the way of the project before May 1978, when the station was finally set upon a new foundation at Race Point in Provincetown, where it still stands.

“If the Old Harbor station does succumb to the relentless force of the Atlantic its loss will be a profound one to many local people,” The Cape Codder noted during the 1970s.

Due to encroaching seas, the National Park Service undertook the massive task of moving the historic station, beginning on Nov. 29, 1977 — and it turned out to be just in the nick of time. Had it remained, there’s little doubt that the station would not have survived the storm known as the “Blizzard of ’78” two months later.

“Half to three-quarters of the section of beach on which it stood had gone, nearby camps had been wrecked or picked up and moved hundreds of feet away,” the Cape Cod Times reported. “Informed local opinion in Chatham has it that the station would never have lasted, that it would have crashed into the sea and broken up during the storm.”

Utilizing large cranes, the historic station, cut into two pieces, was lifted off its North Beach location on to a barge for a 36-mile cruise up the coast, arriving in Provincetown Harbor the following day.

However, it was not without hazards. On its first night, the barge found itself hung up on a Chatham sandbar. Once in Provincetown Harbor, bad weather conditions and a poorly constructed foundation at Race Point held it up from reaching its destination. Moving the cranes from Chatham to Provincetown also took longer than expected.

On one occasion, the barge broke loose and strayed about in the harbor a bit, but was quickly brought under control again.

“They're asking too much of the Lord,” Provincetown Harbormaster Stanley Carter told The New York Times. “High tides, calm winds and smooth seas! You don't get much of that kind of weather here in the winter.”

The station and its barge sustained some damage in the legendary storm on Feb. 6-7, but held on despite the record high tides and hurricane force winds. By April, plans were back in place to move the building to its new Race Point foundation. The station is now an interpretive museum for the Cape Cod National Seashore.

The one-time Lifesaving Service / Coast Guard outpost was commissioned in 1897, following the wreck of the schooner Calvin B. Orcutt off Chatham a year earlier. At that point, the surf came up to within 600 feet of the station. By 1973, that distance had been cut to less than 10 feet, and three years later, storm tides were hitting the building.

After considering Nauset, Cahoon’s Hollow, Pamet River, Highlands, Peaked Hill, High Head, Race Point and Wood End for new Old Harbor station homes, Race Point won out because of its higher elevation and “accreting rather than eroding beach,” according to the National Park Service.

The New York Times noted that the Old Harbor Station was “once the focus of dramatic sea rescues along Cape Cod's treacherous shore, (but) is now itself being rescued.” In his book “Seashore Sentinel, Richard G. Ryder told the story of an old-timer’s comment about the station’s unprecedented move.

“I’ve cruised by a lot of Coast Guard stations during my lifetime,” he said. “But this is the first time I’ve ever seen a Coast Guard station cruise by me.”

Don is a writer, tour guide, and public speaker on Cape Cod lore, a contributing local history columnist for The Cape Codder newspaper of Orleans, Mass., and the author of two books on Outer Cape history. His third book, "Cape Cod Shipwrecks: Stories of Triumph and Tragedy," is due to be published in 2021 by The History Press. Follow him on Twitter at @WildingsCapeCod and on Facebook at @donwildingscapecod.

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